I love cookbooks, and although I’m inspired by them throughout the year, I particularly love them in winter when I can settle in a favorite chair with a new discovery. One of my recent finds is “Salt Sugar Smoke — How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat, and Fish” (Mitchell Beazley, 2012). It contains a great selection of recipes that boosted my confidence as a novice preserver, as well as more challenging recipes that experienced preservers will appreciate. And for people who love reading cookbooks more than making the recipes in them, “Salt Sugar Smoke” offers great food writing. It’s a triple threat.
By Diana Henry
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The book’s author is Diana Henry, a food columnist for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph magazine. She has won numerous awards and has written three other favorite cookbooks of mine: “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul”; “Plenty” (in which she helps you make the most of the foods you have at hand); and “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons: Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa.”
I loved this book on sight because of its burgundy spine and its portability — the lovely hold-in-your-hands size makes it easy to take to friends’ kitchens — but I felt some trepidation when I first opened it. After all, preserving food sounds difficult and fraught with possible disasters, but I trusted Henry’s thoroughness and her enthusiasm for her subject. She didn’t let me down.
Preserving food fell out of favor for a while; it was part of other generations. But thankfully it has experienced a renaissance in recent years. For three years, Henry “preserved food every day, often well into the night.” I now understand her enthusiasm. Once I processed my first batch of strawberry jam, I was hooked.
Sweet and savory in ‘Salt Sugar Smoke’
“Salt Sugar Smoke” offers much more than strawberry jam for those with a sweet tooth, as well as for those who prefer savory tastes. For others, like me, who prefer both, Henry covers a lot of ground, from jams to mustards, spoon sweets to chutneys.
Her recipes are well set out, with clear instructions. The photography, by Laura Edwards, will inspire you.
One of the things I loved about this book was the way Henry’s “how to use” tips helped me see how a recipe can expand my meal possibilities. For example, having Thai Sweet Chili Sauce on hand lets me make a simple breakfast omelet something special; it also adds great taste to a shrimp stir-fry for dinner. A little Hot Date and Preserved Lemon Relish on a chicken sandwich elevates lunchtime.
“Be careful about hygiene, which is essential,” Henry stresses, and adds that, “The recipes have been tested according to the sterilizing and potting practices followed in Great Britain, where jams and chutneys are not treated in water baths.” For North American readers, though, she provides guidelines for processing jars in a water bath. She also reminds you to label and date what you make so you won’t have to guess what is in a jar.
Tucked among the recipes are short pieces — such as “Sharbats and Mint Tea: Middle Eastern Pleasures”; “Perfect Partners: The Surprising Possibilities of the Cheese Board”; and my favorite, “Ash Helicopters and Mangoes on the Roof: Pickling in Britain and India” — that offer extra reading delight.
My favorite of her recipes to date includes Nearly Strawberry Jam. I love this because I can make just enough to keep in a bowl in the refrigerator for a few days. It’s fast, not as sweet as many jams and versatile. For a last-minute dessert, some of it spooned over good vanilla ice cream is just the thing. It’s also delicious on French toast or stirred into Greek yogurt.
Queen Henrietta Maria’s Marmalade of Cherries (adapted from a 17th century recipe Henry “stumbled across in Florence White’s ‘Good Things in England’”) is a recipe I love as much for its name as its intense cherry flavor. Purple Pickled Eggs, with beets providing their neon color, are just the thing to spice up a cold plate.
Home-Salted Cod (which is easy to make) brought back memories of my grandmother, for whom preserving food was once vital. With five children, a husband, two sisters-in-law, a mother-in-law and boarders to feed during the Depression, she couldn’t afford to allow any food to go bad. She lived on a small island in Newfoundland, Canada, where cod was a staple, and dried the salted fillets on large wooden racks. Later, she transformed them into filling and delicious meals, such as Fish and Brewis — cod, potatoes and scrunchions (rendered pork fat).
For me, her granddaughter, unburdened by the imperative to feed many mouths, preserving is a new adventure I am appreciating at my own leisurely pace. I also appreciate Henry’s focus on small details, such as a “good jam for your toast” or “chutney that is made from apples you gathered last fall” and how such details help add happiness to life.
Photo: “Salt Sugar Smoke: How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat and Fish” by Diana Henry. Credit: Author photo and book cover courtesy of Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited